Folding the Laundry

§ If recognition, praise or approval are the reasons that we are working so hard for others, then we are lying to ourselves. §

A man I once dated was in dire straights. He’d been unemployed for quite a while following a series of life disasters (all, let it be said, of his own making), so he’d been forced to move into his sister’s home. Unable to pay rent to her, he took on (with, let it be noted, no little grumbling) all the household chores—cleaning, cooking, laundry, repairs, lawn care. His sister was working long hours of overtime at her retail job, so the arrangement suited them both. They barely saw one another, yet money was earned and necessary household work got done.

But one weekend Boyfriend needed to attend a meeting, one that he hoped might lead to a job. His sister would not be home, he explained, but his elderly cat was seriously ill and likely to pass soon. He did not want the animal to be alone, so he asked me to come out and look after the kitty for a few hours. I agreed.

Now, I am simply not one to sit idly. Even while watching TV, my hands are usually occupied with some chore—sewing, mending, crocheting, paying bills, or even just giving myself a manicure. So while I sat beside the poor sick little cat, stroking him occasionally and trying to convince him to drink or eat, I cast about for something to do. That was made fairly easy by the fact that several baskets of laundry were sitting there, clean but waiting to be folded.

And so I folded laundry, as I always do: carefully, precisely; sorting it all into categories so that it could be put away easily—socks here, towels and washcloths there, bedsheets and pillowcases in a separate stack. Shirts strung onto hangers with the top button fastened; jeans smoothed into a flat square so they could fit tidily into a drawer. I demolished those four baskets of laundry in no time and set them near the hall door so everything could be put away.

Arriving home in due course, Boyfriend noticed the baskets of finished laundry. He flung a “Oh, good!” in my general direction and grabbed them up to put the clothes away. (And if you’re thinking his behavior says something about the unhealthy quality of our relationship, you would be correct. But that’s a story for another blog post.)

I walked over, thinking I would help him store the clothes…and watched in disbelief and dismay as all my carefully, precisely, beautifully folded laundry was flung haphazardly onto shelves and pitched into drawers. The towels, washcloths, sheets and pillowcases were lobbed into a closet in which the linens were not even sorted by item, where nothing was folded at all, but simply wadded up in piles. The jeans were pitched into a pyramid at the bottom of the closet, and the shirts flung in the general direction of the rod, their hangers tangling together and dangling askew. The socks, neatly matched and sorted between dress and athletic socks, were tumbled together into a drawer atop a mess of other unmatched and unsorted footwear.

Worst of all, not even a word of genuine appreciation—something along the lines of, “It was nice of you to do this”—was spoken.

All my hard work was not only unappreciated, but totally for naught. Quietly fuming, I considered heaving the empty baskets across the room! Only the sight of the miserable kitty lying there on the couch kept me from doing so.

Putting my resentment on pause gave me a moment to reflect, though. I recalled that I hadn’t done this work for Boyfriend’s sake, but for my own, to keep my hands and mind occupied while I sat there sadly with his dying pet.

That incident was, I think now, a metaphor and a warning for all of us who are caretaker personalities; who continually go above and beyond for our loved ones, hoping, yearning for just a little recognition of our efforts, perhaps even a compliment. If recognition, praise or approval are the reasons that we are working so hard for others, then we are lying to ourselves. We are caring for our own needs, not theirs, and we need to acknowledge that fact; to pull back, and find a better way to take care of ourselves, before resentment and bitterness overcome us.

As for myself, I still fold laundry as I have always done, with precision and care. And in the years since my precious granddaughter was born, I have spent many an hour at my daughter’s home, not only folding the endless baskets of clean laundry as I watched over the little one, but washing dishes and sweeping floors; keeping my hands busy while helping my children, who suffer the overload of most modern parents. And each time they arrive home, seeing the baskets of neatly folded and carefully sorted and organized clean clothing, they inevitably say to me, “Mom, thank you so much for folding the laundry!”

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like
“The Day the Vacuum Cleaner Rose Up to Smite Me”,
which you may find in the archives on 10/27/2017)

Soup and Sympathy

Over the years, I’ve made many an effort to assist when friends and family members were going through hospital stays or illness. I’ve rushed to emergency rooms, waited anxiously through surgeries, and made visits to those confined for a long hospital stay. I’ve put together personalized “get well” baskets stuffed with puzzles and videos and tea and snacks.  I’ve cleaned homes and baked pot pies and casseroles and muffins, and brought take-out for lunchtime visits.  I’ve sent get-well cards and checking-up-on-you texts, or shopped for and delivered groceries. I’ve cleaned cat litters, and brought fuzzy, warm socks to a friend suffering icy feet following a surgery.  In perhaps the saddest situation ever, I drove through a heavy snowfall early one morning to assist a friend, immobile with a broken leg, whose pet cat had just died unexpectedly. I brought a blanket and a box, laid the little fellow to rest, and then did my best to comfort her.

Throughout time, all of this has, I suppose, amounted to a considerable effort. Yet, spaced out as the events have occurred – spanning perhaps 40 or more years–it hasn’t seemed to amount to all that much.

So it was with very ill grace that I received the ministrations of family members and friends when the tables were turned I myself became seriously ill and was then incapable of self-care following surgery. These people were giving up their time—sometimes productive working time, as well as their free time—to look after me when I was incapacitated.  And I didn’t deserve it.  Of that I felt sure.

I didn’t deserve the errands they ran for me, the nights they spent looking after me—including the several nights one relative spent just sitting with me, watching endless reruns of Downtown Abbey, as I dealt with the reality of my cancer diagnosis. I certainly wasn’t worthy of all the hours they spent schlepping me to and from appointments and taking notes on everything the doctor was telling us—words that mostly went right over my head, as I sat there in a contained bundle of frantic nerves.

When I came home from the hospital and they prepared meals and served me foods, I tried to recall all those pot pies and casseroles and muffins made for others, but I felt like a total fraud, especially as I could barely eat more than a few mouthfuls of their carefully-prepared food. And though I wrote thank-you notes and handed out small gifts to each person who came to my aid, I still felt as if I was running some despicable scam.

Looking at all this through the lens of perspective, I finally understand how dreadfully hard it is for some of us to be the recipient of others’ ministrations.   But that reaction has nothing to do with a lack of gratitude, not at all.  It’s due to a loss of our sense of independence, coupled with a feeling of unworthiness.

Oh, I’m sure there exist those people who bask and glory in the singular attention of others: the work done on their behalf, the care taken of them. In fact, I’ve known such individuals. I’m sure everyone has.  And tending to them has been, frankly, a royal pain in the ass.  But, for most of us, to have to put others to the inconvenience of caring for us is not a situation that we willingly adopt.

When I’m next called upon to bring soup and sympathy to a companion in need, I am going to remember the experience of my own reaction in that same situation; to remember that they are likely squirming under the necessity of having others come to their aid. I’ll remember that as they seem grouchy or ungrateful, or when they appear to wish I’d just get the hell out of their home.  Because I’ve finally walked a mile in their moccasins, and at last I understand the blisters that journey leaves on the (pun intended) soul.